Taking Time to Cast a Ballot in the Human Race
It was 8 a.m. in the garage of the ranch house with the American flag in the flower bed. Behind the sign that said, “Vote Here” sat three gray-haired poll workers, shivering in their cardigans.
In came a voter, an elderly gent. He joshed that if someone didn’t send in a heater, they ought to fire up the barbecue. Everyone had a chuckle, and then in came a neighbor. “How’s your Aunt Opal?” she was asked while the p-p-poll w-w-workers ascertained that her signature and address were true.
That prompted a story about how 96-year-old Aunt Opal had been asked to fill out a questionnaire during a hospital stay. “I said, ‘Aunt Opal, they wanna know here about your sex life,’ ” the neighbor related, “and she said, ‘Well, it hasn’t been that busy lately, dear.’ ”
There was another good chuckle, and then a few more voters, and by 9 a.m., the ballot count was up to about 34. This was in my precinct. I’m guessing things weren’t much more happenin’ in yours.
The people went to the polls this week in a bunch of Southern California suburbs. The day was a lot like Aunt Opal’s sex life: slow. There were no presidential peccadilloes, no millionaires for governor, not even one of those California-style initiatives that make the juices flow.
There was only the grunt work of democracy--city council races, school bonds,
etc.--the business the majority of us have pretty much decided not to mind. Too bad for the majority. As any grunt will tell you, there can be hidden pleasures in the old grind.
California politics can be a barren endeavor; to be a voter here usually feels about as personal as watching professional wrestling on TV. The bigger candidates are basically well-coached strangers who spend lots of time striding purposefully in commercials. There are so many initiatives, designed to apply such blunt force to so many complex moral crises, that you only remember the ones that turn into fighting words at get-togethers with your family.
But then there are the local elections, like the couple dozen or so that took place Tuesday from Thousand Oaks to Duarte to Anaheim. And though few find excitement in voting in them, they provide two advantages: They let you make reasonable choices about people and things you can relate to. And if you hang out a couple minutes more than you have to, you get to catch up on your neighbors’ lives.
For instance, you could have stopped by Westside Volvo in Culver City, where Precinct 2 was voting in the service department lounge. The poll workers--again, retirees--sat at a long table, this time in a warmer setting of showroom models.
Young people never seem to vote in these elections, they were saying, which you’d think they would, given that the issues so often involve schools. Then, as if on cue, an actual young person roared in. Actually, she looked about 35, but her hair wasn’t gray and she was carrying a groovy metal lunch pail for a purse.
“Isn’t that cute!” Sally Lamoreaux, the poll inspector exclaimed.
“Good for self-defense, too,” nodded her husband, Ben.
Looking startled by the small talk, the woman stopped in her tracks. Young people and small talk, as a combo, do tend to be hit-and-miss.
Sally and Ben warmed her up, though, with a little more chitchat, and by the time she was done voting, she was so loose that she almost forgot her keys. As she strolled out, Ben, a big man with a big beard, launched into another exchange with another voter, about how there’s an offramp now on Sepulveda, where his grandma’s goat farm used to be.
You could also have swung by the Sierra Madre Congregational Church, where Barbara Watson was handing out ballots, her white hair nicely permed. The voters were coming slowly but steadily and most of them knew her well enough to say hello.
One knew her as “Jim’s mom.” One had just talked with her the previous afternoon. One, a tall, stooped man, hadn’t seen her in a while, and paused to deliver some sad news.
“Mary won’t be voting today. She had a stroke,” he said.
“Oh, I’m so . . . “
“A month ago.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“It’s just her voice, but. . . .” The man cleared his throat. “Well, she just couldn’t be here, you know. . . .”
Then he just stood for a moment, staring, tapping one hand against his pants leg, indescribably alone. Watson took his hand, and then handed him his ballot with a look that had nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with home.
Which may or may not make up for the things about governance that we dismiss as donkey work unless they’re dressed up with a cheap thrill and a hard sell. But it does hint at something more than a mark on a ballot, something bigger than yourself.
Shawn Hubler’s e-mail address is email@example.com.